Plantains or Plankton - Where's the Balance?

Recently, Reef Brief covered the importance that lobster harvesting has in the export trade of Belize. Agriculture also plays a significant role; Belize is a major exporter of citrus, bananas, and sugar cane. As much as this industry has benefited the economy of Belize, it has also negatively impacted the environment. Agriculture directly degrades the landscape of Belize through deforestation. But what is perhaps more remarkable are the indirect impacts this industry makes_it significantly damages the coastal environment, particularly the reef.

It is commonly believed that the majority of land cleared in Belize is due to the forestry industry, but in actuality, it is agriculture that has put the most pressure on the country's land. Currently, according to the Land Information Centre, about 10% of the total area of Belize has been cleared for agricultural crops such as citrus, bananas, and sugar cane.

Deforestation itself creates several greenhouse gases, as well as chemically active gases that cause acid rain and can alter the climate, resulting in global warming. Moreover, the location of agricultural activities in relation to watersheds, and the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other agri-chemicals can often have major implications for the health of the coastal zone.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
Land clearing often leads to erosion, impacting the coastal zone by causing the water to become turbid (murky). Coral reefs require clean, clear, water that is low in nutrients to grow and survive. The sediments that enter coral reef areas cloud water, blocking sunlight and physically smother the coral, as well as surrounding filter feeder organisms (plankton). When agricultural development occurs along the coast, sediment filters such as mangroves and seagrass beds are often destroyed, increasing the amount of sediments potentially reaching the reef. Additionally, land erosion often leads to the transport of pesticides and fertilizers, such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the coastal zone. This run-off has many effects, such as a disruption in food chains, killing vulnerable larval stages. Furthermore, high quantities of nitrates and phosphates, or eutrophication, tend to increase algae growth which eventually depletes the surrounding marine environment of oxygen. Fish dependent on oxygen for survival consequently die due to lack of circulation. Overproduction of algae also decreases live coral cover, changing the reef community structure. Likewise, seagrass beds, which are critical nursery and feeding habitat to species such as lobster, conch, sea turtles, and manatees, are often damaged due to the presence of herbicides.

It is difficult to estimate how extensive the impacts sedimentation and agricultural pollution have been on the coastal zone of Belize, but there is major cause for concern. Of primary importance is the collaboration of the growers association, government agencies, and relevant non-governmental organizations to work together to find solutions to this potentially devastating situation. A good place to start is in reducing practices that cause sediment run-off (directing drainage waters away from streams and waterways), as well as reducing the use of pesticides. If these changes are not made in the near future, we can expect to lose one of the country's greatest resources-the reef.

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